If you pick up any work of fiction written in
the last century, you are likely to find the story broken into
logical chunks that are "digestible" for the reader. Even James
Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (comprised of nearly 700 pages ending in the middle of a
sentence and beginning on page one in the middle of that same ending
sentence) is separated into parts, chapters, and paragraphs.
But why are there breaks in any work of fiction, and how does one decide where to put
The main purpose of scene breaks
is to break up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the
reading experience. The main purpose of chapters is to break up text
in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading experience. The
main purpose of parts is to break up text in a logical, coherent way
to enhance the reading experience.
easy and logical (not to mention repetitive), doesn't it? And yet,
many writers don’t utilize breaks in their work in ways that enhance
the reading experience, and failing to do so makes a novel less
pleasing and less polished.
How Do the Experts
Address This Issue?
Perusal of scores of my favorite writing books reveals that few
have much to say on this subject, and only three have any specific
instructions. The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition
(1.61), tells us: "Most prose works are divided into chapters,
often, though not necessarily, of approximately the same length.
Chapter titles should be similar in tone, if not in length. Each
title should give a reasonable clue to what is in the chapter;
whimsical titles in a serious book, for example, can be misleading.
Many potential readers scan the table of contents to determine
whether a book is worth their time (and money). Relatively short
titles are preferable to long, ungainly ones, both for appearance on
the page and for use in running heads" (p. 32).
This is so
broad, so general, as to be almost useless, leaving the impression
that there are no hard-and-fast "rules" for how to do this. So let’s
explore the topic and see what conclusions can be made.
Back in the Olden Days
Reading works from one hundred or more years ago, one can see
specific structural tactics in the writing of authors such as
Hawthorne, Melville, Alcott, Austen, Dickens, and Cooper. Author
David Morrell, in his book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing; A
Novelist Looks at His Craft tells us: "Nineteenth century novels tended
to have long chapters that felt like novels in miniature. With each
new chapter, the reader had the sense that fresh machinery was being
brought into place, that exposition was starting anew. Recent
novels, influenced by the rapid pace of movies, tend to have shorter
chapters, with greater speed from one to the other, avoiding
exposition at the start of a scene, going straight to the purpose
for the scene, then getting out of the scene and into the next
without any denouement" (p. 78).
A 19th century example of this is Louisa May Alcott’s novel
Little Women. Alcott broke the book into two parts, the first
comprised of 23 chapters and the latter of 24, for a total of 47
chapters. Alcott wrote one chapter per day on this novel, and each
segment was written almost like a little story in and of itself.
Although events and themes did hearken back to the early sections,
the chapter arrangement made the novel somewhat episodic. Some
modern writers and teachers would say the 19th century writers
produced highly structured novels—perhaps too structured—that by today’s adult standards lack variety and
In the olden days, it wasn’t just chapters that tended to be long
and self-contained. Paragraphs and sentences were longer, more
languid, perhaps because readers without TV or radio had loads more
time on their hands. I recall reading a few novels in college—mostly
from the early to mid 20th century—where the author didn’t seem to
employ any chapters, perhaps utilizing long parts
instead. Maybe the breaks were there, but the story just went on and
on. It felt like swimming from Australia to New Zealand, with never
a break in sight for the reader. Having a chapter break would have
been a good thing—a literal "break"—a chance to put the book down
for a while and come back later after meals or chores or other
changed, and modern readers have different expectations. Few outside
of those in English literature classes want to read multitudes of
long, circuitous sentences, nor do they want to open a 250 to 500
page book and find no breaks at all. Even being broken into, say,
five or ten parts doesn’t seem very attractive. The vast majority of
readers, you see, would like to have a periodic pause that
refreshes. And besides, without the chapter ending or scene break,
who knows where you stopped reading on the page?
Case for Figuring Out Logical Breaks
Lawrence Block, in his marvelous book, Writing the Novel: From
Plot to Print, tells us this: "Some writers avoid chapter breaks because they
don’t want to encourage the reader to pause in the course of their
heart-pounding narrative. One might argue in reply that a story
that’s all that gripping will hold its readers through a chapter
break. In my own reading, I’ve found that chapterization tends to
keep me reading. I tell myself I can stop in a few minutes, at the
end of the next chapter, and I keep telling myself that until I’ve
finished the book" (p. 156).
Chapter breaks—and the decision
as to whether you name those chapters or not—are issues wrapped up
in how you structure your novel and what type of novel it is. For
instance, most mysteries tend to have regular chapters, but often,
the break is such that the reader doesn't want to put the book down.
When left on a cliff-hanger, many (perhaps most) readers are
compelled to start the next chapter, even if it goes to a different
time, place, and characters, and read on to find out what happens to
the characters or storyline.
It is an acceptable tactic to use chapter breaks to jar the
reader (with a cliffhanger or to trick the reader or to keep the
reader on her toes), but as the great writing teacher John Gardner
always said, the goal of the writer is to avoid jarring the
reader from the fictional dream. The author’s intent, particularly in genre
fiction, is to suck the reader into the book’s world so completely
that the real world is shut out, and the experience of the book is
all that matters. Jarring the reader out of that state can be
detrimental; the reader may toss the book across the room, never
pick it up again, or even start a bad word-of-mouth, none of which
is good for the future of your book.
Some authors make all their
chapters basically the same length. Others structure the chapters
based on events or on a day’s reckoning. Still other authors are
known for varying chapter length and dropping in a quick action
scene or some portent scene of foreboding in as little as a
page or two. Using breaks for effect can be extremely useful in
terms of creating excitement and exhilaration, particularly in genre
fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, drama, action-adventure,
sci-fi, etc.). Many thriller and sci-fi authors do this regularly,
and the reader expects it.
Chapter or scene breaks may help
a writer structure her novel. By figuring out where to insert those
breaks, one can more easily categorize and even outline what
happened in each of those units. Chapter breaks can make the actual
writing easier. Block says, "One function of chapters is that they
reduce the book in the writer’s own eyes to manageable dimensions…
you may find it easier to imagine yourself writing a three or four
or five thousand-word chapter than a full-length novel. By parceling
your book into such bite-sized portions, the task of writing it may
seem within your abilities" (p. 156).
Chapter breaks (or at least scene breaks) are useful, if not
downright necessary, any time the author is shifting
gears into a new point of view, a different time, or into the lives
of new characters. Using chapters will fulfill the original goal of
breaking up text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading
I believe in using chapter
breaks. They help me, the author, figure out what I’m doing. They
convey to readers that the author has a plan in mind and that the
reader is not being dragged willy-nilly over land and sea. The key
thing, though, is to be conscious of a plan and to follow that plan,
ensuring that the breaks have an internal logic which, even though
not entirely apparent upon first glance, can be discerned upon
further study. Of course, readers who are wrapped up in the
"fictional dream" don't usually notice structure issues; they just
enjoy the flow of the book.
And flow should be the main
focus for how you use breaks in your novel. You should do what needs
to be done to make the book flow appropriately. If you want to
surprise or shatter the nerves of your reader, chapters can be used
to great effect. If you want to segue from one area or character or
time, chapters, parts, or scene breaks could be used. I consider
breaks critical when there is a major shift in place, time, or
character, but sometimes a chapter can encompass several scenes,
broken up within, if there are only minor shifts.
Nobody likes to start a chapter,
read two pages, then stop and start again. Chapters are a signal
that there is some sort of shift – or that the reader needs to
reorient him or herself. Who wants to reorient every 5 minutes?
Remember, the ultimate purpose of breaks in a manuscript is to
structure the text in a logical, coherent way to enhance the reading
experience. Is that happening in your manuscript? If not, how does
one find a balance?
Do You Decide on the Perfect Breaks?
Many writers have a natural feel for when it’s time to end a
chapter and start a new one. Still, the decisions you make
unconsciously in early drafts should always be deliberated when you
revise and edit. Once your novel is complete in draft form, work
your way through it and do a fast outline, noting where all breaks
and chapters are. For instance, it might look something like
Fight Scene—Ella’s POV
Police Station—Michael’s POV
2002 Back story—Michael’s POV
Back story—Ella’s POV
…and so on. When you have laid
out the chapters and given a descriptive line for each scene, you
can check over the flow, carefully reading the endings of one scene
and the beginnings of the next scene. Perhaps you’ll decide that the
four hospital scenes (above) in Chapters 2 and 3 ought to be in one
chapter. Or maybe the four scenes at the hospital should have their
own chapters. You may even discover that scenes could be switched or
combined for better effect. Until you thoroughly examine what you
have, you won’t know.
Another thing you can do is take
your favorite books, particularly those that seem in some way
similar to yours, and examine them. How did that author break up the
story? Are the chapters titled? All basically the same length? Have
cliffhangers? You can use that information to figure out how you
want to break up your own work.
information given to you by first readers and "beta" readers can be
invaluable. Share the completed draft and ask readers to indicate
where the flow is impeded. Ask them to note when the narrative and
events seem to go on too long; where changes in perspective
interrupt the scene; where segues seem too abrupt; and what their
opinions are about how chapters and breaks should be inserted.
From the Publisher’s Point of
Once you have completed your
manuscript draft, it is a good idea to consider the format of your
book through the eyes of a publisher. If you plan to submit to a
particular press, take a look at their books and see whether they
tend to use a standard chapter and scene break style. You might
increase your chances of publication by formatting your submission
in the style of that press. If you’re writing a love story, for
instance, you’ll have more luck selling the book to a romance press
if your book is structured similarly to the romance house style. If
you’re writing a literary tour-de-force, consider how closely your
chapter and scene breaks adhere to other literature like yours.
If you write long chapters, a publisher may pay no attention, but
if you write a book full of very short chapters, a problem arises
that you may have never considered. Let’s say you’ve written an
88-chapter Star Trek-like narrative, complete with chapters
containing frequent Personal and/or Ship’s Logs (i.e. Star Date
2215, Captain Janeway’s Personal Log). Each of those log entries takes up two or three
pages, and they rotate with longer chapters that describe action,
relationships, confrontations, and ship activities.
In most standard novels,
chapters (and parts) begin on the right-hand page, usually with a
blank left-hand page. Every time you have a short chapter, the
publisher may have to insert extra blank pages to balance this out.
Books are priced based on how much paper and ink is used, and if
your novel contains too many chapters, which forces the press to add
blank pages, it will increase the cost of the book and raise the
cover price. For a debut author, price can make or break the success
of the book, and publishers know this.
The bottom line is that if you
choose to do something unusual or nonstandard with your book’s
chapter or scene break structure, it can affect the book’s
marketability and therefore keep it from being published.
I wish I could offer an extensive list of
helpful books about this topic or, at the very least, some Internet
links, but I haven’t found any books or sites with more than passing
comments. Despite the fact that little is written about this issue,
it is an important one that each writer should consider carefully.
© Lori L. Lake,
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in
Not for distribution or copying without the express
permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or
divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at
Lori@LoriLLake.com. Lori welcomes questions and comments.